Tommy Nicol was kind and friendly – a beloved brother. Why did he die in prison on a ‘99-year’ sentence?

<span>Tommy Nicol was the 67th man to have killed himself while serving an IPP sentence.</span><span>Illustration: Yann Kebbi/The Guardian</span>
Tommy Nicol was the 67th man to have killed himself while serving an IPP sentence.Illustration: Yann Kebbi/The Guardian

When Tommy Nicol told his sister Donna Mooney about his prison sentence, she didn’t believe him. It was May 2009 and he had stolen yet another car. Nicol was a petty criminal, always nicking motors, and was rarely out of jail. “He said: ‘They’ve given me a 99-year sentence.’ I said: ‘That’s ridiculous.’ I thought he was confused.” Over the next few years, Nicol occasionally mentioned the sentence in letters to Mooney and asked her to look into it. She admits she didn’t give it much thought at the time.

In 2015, Nicol killed himself in prison. He was 37. It was only then that Mooney discovered he had been right all along. Nicol had a four-year tariff (the minimum amount of time he could serve in jail) and an indeterminate sentence, known as imprisonment for public protection. IPP is also called a 99-year sentence because people serving one can, technically, be jailed for 99 years. When they are released, it is on a 99-year licence, which means they can be recalled to prison at any time in their life for even minor breaches, such as being late for a probation appointment (although the Parole Board will consider whether to terminate the licence 10 years after first release).

IPP was introduced in England and Wales by Labour in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and first used in 2005 to protect the public from serious offenders whose crimes did not merit a mandatory life sentence. IPP was abolished in 2012 because it was regarded as a breach of human rights, but it was not abolished retrospectively. There are still 2,852 people in prison serving IPP sentences. Many of them now have severe mental health problems and have lost hope because they don’t know when, or if, they will be released. In the 19 years since IPP was introduced, 90 prisoners serving the sentence are known to have killed themselves. A 2020 study by the Prison Reform Trust found that IPP prisoners were two and a half times more likely to harm themselves than others in the prison population.

Mooney lives with her husband and two boys in a stylish, modern house, but asks me not to disclose the location because she has been attacked in the past for her campaigning. She looks around and says it couldn’t be more different from her and Nicol’s childhood. Her husband, a marketing executive, has done well for himself. As has she. Mooney taught nursery and primary schoolchildren before becoming an education adviser and academic.

Nicol and Mooney grew up in a chaotic household in London. Their mother had six children and, Mooney says, terrible taste in men, who were unreliable at best. Her and Nicol’s father was from Saudi Arabia and left their mother when she was pregnant with Mooney. As a family, they stood out: “We were all different colours. Me and Tommy are brown, we have a white sister and the dads of my two younger brothers and sister are Jamaican.” They moved from home to home, sometimes living in refuges, escaping the violent men in their mother’s life.

Nicol was the eldest of the children by 18 months and Mooney the second eldest. They couldn’t have been closer as kids. She remembers talking to him through the fence that separated her nursery from his primary school. He taught her to ride a bike by taking her to a multistorey car park. “I was scared. Petrified. He took me up the ramp and held the back of the bike and cheered me on. ‘You can do it!’ He let go and ran beside me and I managed to do it. He was always like that. Pushing you. He’s a champion.” She still sometimes talks of Nicol in the present tense.

Nicol was always climbing on and jumping off things he shouldn’t have. “Tommy loved being outside and we had a lot of freedom.” He was popular, she says. “Super-friendly, chatty, kind. He loved girls. He was a handsome lad. My friends used to say: ‘He’s so fit,’ and I’d be like: ‘He’s my brother, puhlease!’”

Mooney was more cautious and introverted. While she did well academically, Nicol struggled with school work. (As an adult, he was diagnosed with dyslexia.) “If he was asked to read, he couldn’t, so he’d just kick out. He’d get into trouble, being mouthy to the teacher. He climbed to the top of this high fence at primary school one day, took his top off and was shouting at the teacher. He was expelled from endless schools.”

Nicol was sent to a specialist school for pupils who had been expelled, but he didn’t last long there, either. He started to hang around with older boys. By the time he was 14, he was stealing cars. He did it for a buzz, Mooney says. He certainly never made any money from it – he didn’t even sell the cars on. After a period in care, he was sent to a secure training centre. Soon after his release, he and a few older friends robbed a shop. Nicol was the only one who got caught and he refused to tell the police who else was involved. By the time he was 16, he was serving a sentence at Feltham young offender institution in west London.

Whenever Mooney visited her brother, he appeared to be doing fine. “Tommy always seemed quite chirpy. Except for one letter, he never showed any vulnerability or revealed what he was dealing with. But it was really hard for him. I didn’t realise how hard it was till after the inquest.” Nicol attempted suicide as a teenager at Feltham, but Mooney learned this only recently.

After his release from Feltham, Nicol was recalled – this time for a fight in a pub. He was sent to an adult prison. His life began to follow the same pattern: prison, a few weeks of freedom, another recall. Mooney reckons that, until his IPP sentence, the longest Nicol spent free was three months.

When he was out, he would nearly always visit his sister, often staying with her. They talked about the possibility of him keeping out of trouble and getting a job. “He wanted to be a mechanic,” Mooney says, laughing. “He probably would have been really good at it. He was good at taking things apart and putting them back together.” Does she think he was capable of putting his life back together? “One hundred per cent. Look at countries like Sweden and Finland. Their reoffending rates are so low because they care about people. They help to fix them early.”

She thinks about the life Nicol could have led. “That’s what makes me so angry. The education system, the prison system; it’s all geared towards damaging the most damaged.”

Her brother never received support, she says. “We’d have the conversation all the time. He’d say: ‘I want to come out, get a job, have a family,’ but he didn’t know how to get there. He’d come out, get overwhelmed, make really bad decisions and do stupid things.” Just think, Mooney says, if the money spent on incarcerating her brother had been used for therapy, to prepare him for the outside world and to support him once he was free.

The only time she didn’t see Nicol was on his final release in 2009. Mooney doesn’t know why he didn’t get in touch with her; it haunts her. But she does know about his last hours as a free man. Typically, it involved a stolen car. This time, though, he didn’t take it for a joyride. Nicol was living in the approved premises that prisoners are allocated when they come out on parole. If he had got back to the hostel late, he would have breached his licence. That night, he was running late. Terrified he would be recalled to prison again, he saw a car in a garage and nicked it to get himself back in time. Mooney laughs. “I know! It doesn’t make sense. You’re going to get recalled anyway, because you’ve stolen a car.” Logic wasn’t Tommy’s strong point, she says.

The man in the garage tried to stop Nicol and was hurt in the tussle. Nicol was charged with robbery, attempted robbery and possession of an offensive weapon (the victim said he had a knife, which Nicol denied). He received an IPP.

While Nicol’s life was careering out of control, Mooney’s was going better than she had ever imagined. She had moved with her husband to New York for his work. She had got a great job, lecturing in early-years education at City University in Manhattan. “It was amazing,” she says. “I never thought I’d be living a life like that.” She lurches to a stop. “But none of that matters when someone you love dies.”

For the first time, she became distant from Tommy. She wrote to him in prison, he called her occasionally, but she didn’t see him during his IPP sentence. Mooney wonders whether he would still be alive if she had been nearby. “How could I not feel like that?” she says. “I was the closest person to him and in a country so far away. If we’d been here, would he have let us know that he was having such a hard time? Would I have visited him? Probably. Would it have made a difference? Maybe. When someone dies by suicide, you run those things through your head.”

Nine years on from Nicol’s death, the voices haven’t quietened. “Why didn’t I read up about the IPP? Why didn’t I fight for him more?” Nicol was rarely in touch with his mother or other siblings. “He had no one. I was the only person and I wasn’t there when he needed me.” She starts to cry.

In September 2015, Mooney was in New York when she experienced an extreme, inexplicable anxiety. “I was travelling with my husband and my son and I remember having this feeling of dread. I kept waking up in the night.” She sniffs back her tears. “I’ve never had anything like that before. That was the week when everything was happening with Tommy. And part of me wonders if it was connected in some way.”

The following week, the prison told her family that Nicol had killed himself. Mooney was broken. “I didn’t believe it ... He’d been through such terrible things in his life and he’s so strong. I was like: ‘He would never do that.’ I felt ruined.”

Mooney demanded information from the Mount, the prison in Hertfordshire where he died. “I went into this spiral. I was in America trying to find out where his body was and what happened to him. Nobody would tell us anything.” A week later, she returned to England to organise the funeral. “I went straight to the hospital to see Tommy’s body. I just wanted to see him.”

After Mooney returned to New York, she kept trying to find out what happened to her brother. She started researching IPP and was shocked by what she found. The sentence had been abolished three years earlier, yet Nicol was still in jail serving one. He was the 67th man to have killed himself while serving an IPP sentence in the 10 years they had been employed. The name of the sentence made no sense to her, either. The only person Nicol presented a serious threat to was himself.

Mooney made contact with others affected by IPP sentences. She discovered that many of those who had survived IPP ended up with severe mental health problems. Ironically, many were being refused parole because their mental health was too poor.

But Mooney was yet to discover the worst: what had happened to Nicol in his final weeks.


When IPP was abolished in 2012, the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, called the sentence a “stain” on the criminal justice system. He admitted it was “almost impossible” for prisoners to prove that they were no longer a risk to the public – a requirement for release. When IPP was introduced, the government predicted that only 900 people would serve the sentence at any one time; when it was abolished, that figure was 6,000. In total 8,711 people were given the sentence. Of those, just 249 were women.

In 2014, David Blunkett, who introduced IPP when he was home secretary, said the government had “got the implementation wrong”. In 2021, Blunkett acknowledged two major flaws in IPP. First, resources were not put in place to ensure that the courses and therapies prisoners needed to prove they were fit for release were available. It had often been impossible for prisoners to complete the required courses and therapies. Second, Blunkett said, recall provisions were “made more draconian”, resulting in those on IPP sentences being recalled for trivial breaches of licence.

Blunkett noted that out of the 3,000 people then still in prison on IPP, 1,300 of them were there because of recalls – an increase of 100% from 2016. He said: “If we are not careful, that trajectory will lead to more prisoners being in prison on IPP on recall than are actually in prison for the original IPP sentence applied, which is a farcical situation and a tragedy for them.” That tragedy has now come to pass. At the end of last year, of the 2,852 people serving IPP sentences; 1,625 had been recalled and 1,227 had never been released.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of all was devising IPP in the first place. How could an indefinite sentence for these kind of crimes ever have been just? How could the very nature of it not destroy the hope or sanity of people such as Nicol?


Mooney struggled hugely after her brother’s death: “I was trying to get up and function, I had a two-year-old I was trying to give a stable life to, and I couldn’t even walk down the street without crying.” Over time, she learned more about Nicol’s final weeks. “I’d go through everything, pull out inaccuracies and contradictions. I thought this must be happening to other people. So I started looking at the suicides. I went through every report on anyone who’d died on an IPP.”

She discovered the whole truth only after Nicol’s inquest – three years after his death. Nicol had been a model prisoner in several prisons for the four years up to his tariff. “He was working in the kitchens, he didn’t take any drugs … He was compliant, trying to engage, and he spent four years trying to get on these frigging courses.”

After the four years, Nicol was refused parole because – like so many other IPP prisoners – he had failed to get on the courses he needed to complete to be released. “He was dyslexic. He wrote off to one and they said you haven’t got enough information on your form, you can’t come here.” (Ministry of Justice figures for the year to March 2020 show that 57% of prisoners had English and maths levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old.) Did he get any help to fill in the forms? Mooney shakes her head. “They lost his files for another course. He kept asking them to check the files had gone in. He found out a year later they’d lost them.”

Time and again, he got turned down. He was told he was unsuitable because he had no insight into his aggression, because he had not taken full responsibility for his offences, because he needed a psychological assessment. He repeatedly voiced his frustration that he had been unable to take part in offending behaviour programmes, because he knew this meant he would never be released.

Another two years passed in which he applied unsuccessfully for the courses he needed to complete. Nicol had been in prison for six years, two years beyond his tariff, when the Parole Board turned him down again in June 2015. It was a devastating blow. What’s more, he wasn’t even going to be transferred from Erlestoke prison in Wiltshire to an open prison, which would get him ready for resettlement outside. Nicol was so beside himself that he hit his head repeatedly against the cell door.

Because of this, he was moved to the segregation unit, where he spent three months. He went on two hunger strikes: one for five days, the other for seven.

In those three months in segregation at Erlestoke, Nicol’s mental health deteriorated drastically. According to the report into his death by the prisons and probation ombudsman (PPO), “Nicol had been shouting that he would save other prisoners once he was released. This had kept other prisoners awake during the night.”

He was sent to the Mount, his final prison. Nicol was initially put in a shared cell and complained that he was entitled to a single cell. For this, he received an adjudication (a warning for breaching prison discipline), even though he was proved correct and duly moved. “They didn’t know anything about him,” says Mooney. “Nothing was flagged that he’d been in segregation for three months and had gone on hunger strike.” He then cut his face with a razor blade and set fire to his cell. Prison officers claimed he threatened them.

He was put in segregation again. His mental health got even worse. He drew a circle in his own blood and sat in it, rocking, with a paper plate on his face that he was wearing as a mask. Staff reported that it was odd behaviour, but no action was taken. He should have had a mental health assessment within 24 hours of being put in segregation, but it was Friday and the staff trained to do it had gone home for the weekend. In the week he spent at the Mount, he was never assessed once.

Prison officers claimed Nicol had a weapon. Mooney says they were referring to a radio aerial and the broken frame of his glasses that he was using to cut himself. “So you know what they did?” Mooney is so distraught that she can barely talk. “Six prison officers dressed in riot gear go in the cell. I saw the video at the inquest. He’s in the cell, rocking on the floor, and they tell him to get to the back of the cell. He stands up and all these guys run in with their shields and shove him to the back and then they restrain him.”

Nicol was strip-searched and moved to an unfurnished cell. “There was nothing in there but a mattress and a paper pot,” Mooney says. “He’s having a mental health crisis and they put him on the floor and one of the prison guards says to him: ‘You can come out when you behave yourself.’” The inquest heard that Nicol hit his head repeatedly against the cell door, stamped on his own fingers and tried to gouge out his eyes. He was left there for more than 24 hours. Although ACCTs (the care planning process for prisoners identified as being at risk of suicide or self-harm) were carried out by officers, the mental health team was still not involved.

On the final day of his life, the mental health team asked to assess Nicol three times, but officers refused. The PPO report states that when the mental health team leader went to see Nicol, “staff said that his risk was too high for her to speak to him or even observe him through the cell door”. This was despite the team leader saying she could not rule out an acute psychotic illness and a nurse being allowed to check his injured finger.

At about 8.45pm, an officer checked Nicol, who showed him cuts on his head. The officer tried to talk to him but said he was incoherent. His colleague rang the communications room and asked the night manager to come to the segregation unit because Nicol had self-harmed. Both officers returned to the cell to find Nicol with a towel wrapped around his head, refusing to speak. They were satisfied that it was not an emergency and told the night manager there was no need to attend immediately. At about 8.57pm, one of the officers checked on Nicol. He had hanged himself.

Nicol died three days later at Watford general hospital. After his death, Mooney asked the prison for two things: information about what had happened to her brother and the return of his possessions. She was told that the chaplain would get back to her with the answers. “We’re still waiting for that call,” she says. She was sent his black glasses case, a tobacco tin and a lighter. “I said: ‘Is that all he had?’ and they said yes. My sister then got a box of his stuff about three months later. It was wet and mouldy and turned up out of the blue. That was horrendously traumatising for her.”

The inquest was held at Hatfield coroner’s court in November 2018. It heard evidence from Dr Dinesh Maganty, a consultant forensic psychiatrist, who described Nicol’s risk level on the day of his death as the highest it could be. He referred to a “perfect storm of risk factors” including his IPP sentence. He said that in the absence of any mental health care or support, Nicol should, at a minimum, have been placed on constant observation, which could have saved his life.

In January 2015, eight months before he died, Nicol had made a complaint to the prison authorities in which he described his inability to progress towards release as the “psychological torture of a person who is doing 99 years”. Maganty said that the IPP sentence had contributed to Nicol’s death “more than anything else”, as it had made him “lose hope”.


Donna Mooney never wanted to be a campaigner. There are things she is passionate about – education, social deprivation, prison. But she never saw herself as the type of person who would sit on panels or stand on podiums, as she has done in recent years. The thing she had in her favour was the thing she least wanted – a devastating personal story that exemplified the inhumanity of IPP and the failings of the prison system: “I was just angry. I was so angry.”

She is just as angry today. Dominic Raab’s response to the justice select committee’s report on IPP in 2023 made her furious. “He referred to the sentence as ‘unsettling’,” she says. “My brother’s dead. That’s not unsettling. I’m never going to see my brother again, never going to hear his voice, never going to be able to hug him or share those memories we have. That’s not unsettling, that’s shit.” She comes to a stop and mops away more tears. “And I’m just one person. This has happened to loads of other people. So, ‘unsettling’ is insulting.”

Three years ago, Mooney co-founded Ungripp (United Group for Reform of IPP), a campaigning and awareness group that fights for IPP prisoners to be resentenced. As well as championing change, it offers, via its website, an opportunity for IPP prisoners to tell their stories in the safety of anonymity. There are more than 200 submissions. One, from John H at HMP Hull, is the lyrics to a rap he has written called Death Sentence:

I’d rather grow old sitting on death row
Awaiting the lethal injection
Instead of this barbaric ‘no hope’ sentence

In 2020, Nicol’s family received undisclosed damages from the Ministry of Justice after beginning a civil claim in the high court. They argued that the absence of a maximum term led directly to Nicol’s death and that the administration of the sentence constituted a breach of his right to life under the Human Rights Act 1998.

In 2022, nine prisoners serving IPP sentences killed themselves – the highest number of self-inflicted deaths by prisoners since the sentence was introduced. Last year, the prisons and probation ombudsman, Adrian Usher, published a bulletin that said: “A prisoner’s IPP status should be considered as a potential risk factor for suicide and self-harm.” Usher revealed that of the 19 self-inflicted IPP deaths reviewed for the bulletin, only five of the individuals had been placed on an ACCT.

In August 2023, Alice Jill Edwards, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, wrote to the government asking how the IPP sentencing system is compatible with its “human rights obligations and, in particular, the absolute prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment”. Like Mooney, she has called for the resentencing of IPP prisoners: “IPP sentences were abandoned more than a decade ago. There can be no justification for the continued indefinite detention of so many individuals, often for relatively minor crimes.”

In March, the House of Lords voted through a series of amendments to the victims and prisoners bill that would help IPP prisoners, but resentencing was not backed by either Conservative or Labour. “There are no votes in releasing people from prison,” Mooney says.

I ask Mooney whether her work with Ungripp is helping her or making life harder. “I retraumatise myself every time I talk about Tommy. I think about a time when I’ll not be doing it any more and I can just grieve for my brother.” I hear her talking on the phone to one man who has been in prison for 18 years for attempting to steal a cigarette. He seems to have lost hope, just as Nicol did, and now has terrible mental health problems. He is one of four IPP prisoners who calls her a number of times a week. If you didn’t know better, you would think she was talking to her brother.

In a way, perhaps she is. “I just wish I’d been able to do this for Tommy,” Mooney says. “I didn’t. It’s never going to change what happened, it’s never going to bring him back …” She trails off. “It’s a bit screwed up, but if I can do this to stop someone else killing themselves, then I will.”

• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or you can email or In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at

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